Monday, September 9, 2013

Katatonia - Dethroned & Uncrowned (2013)

It only took four days. That's it. Across the world, 1150 people opened their wallets, swiped the credit cards, doled out their hard earn dollars, euros, pounds, and francs to make an album happen. The concept was simple, yet so intriguing. Katatonia would revisit their latest album, "Dead End Kings," but in a way that would change the album, and our perception of it, forever. In the words of the band, "The synopsis is simple and album title won’t lie; the drums will be dethroned and the distorted rhythm guitars will be uncrowned!" But the question remained; what would Katatonia sound like, without those elements bursting through your speakers on each and every album? And it only took four days. Enough people wanted to hear the resulting work, that the money poured in. A release date has been set, hints have been dropped, and an album is on the way. The track list remains the same, but the sound has completely changed. "Dethroned & Uncrowned" is a new vision.

Much like the remixes that have been a stalwart of their singles over the years, the tracks are particularly moody, but in a way that only Katatonia has been able to achieve. Gone are the crushing riffs and blasting snares on "The Parting." In their place, a stirring blend of acoustic guitars and various synthesized elements. Still at the helm, vocalist Jonas Renkse sees his voice allowed to softly shine through, conveying even more emotion int he stripped down setting. His lyrics become even more powerful, even in the songs that change the least. Having already boasted the most delicate structure, "The One You Are Looking For Is Not Here" might be the poster child for why this album was so well conceived. It remains airy, but even more poignant, backed by piano keys that are softer than soft. Even the darker offerings from "Dead End Kings" see new life here, as "Hypnone" takes on an entirely new identity. All of the markers are there; you know it's the same song, but perception changes.

Conversely, "The Racing Heart," thanks to background keyboards and synths, becomes an ambient delight. With every strum of an acoustic guitar, it imbeds itself further into your brain stem. The layered vocals, taken from the original, are a masterpiece when paired with this sort of medium. Arguably the heaviest track to remake, "Buildings" sees itself reborn as a twisted piano and acoustic guitar melody. Replacing the overwhelming distortion here would prove to be a massive challenge, but one done with an incredible amount of care and melodic sensibility. It's as if they simply slid that input down, and increased the volume that surrounds it, adding new layers of vocals and orchestrations, as they do on "Leech," sometimes invoking a vintage feel to the entire mix. While it isn't a surprise, the voice of Renkse becomes the glue that holds the two versions together. It is his signature crooning that turns the new version of "Ambitions" into a melancholy love song, of sorts. Gone are the bombastic drum beats, in their place, lightly touched keys and strings.

The last third of the album brings a haunting beauty to the table, in ways that may have seemed logical, but needed to be heard to be fully appreciated. There is a methodical precision to the way the acoustics are layered here, creating a depth of sound that is thoroughly enjoyable. It becomes the heaviest track on an album that has stripped that element away, and it does so with as much fervor as it allows. In the same way, the band keeps so much of the energy of "Lethean" in tact, without needing a single blaring riff or kick. It speaks to their talent as songwriters, creating tracks that can be built, torn down, and rebuilt in new configurations. As the song concludes, with Renkse asking, "What took you so long," a single chill runs up your spine. One of the forgotten tracks before, "First Prayer" gets new life here, as layer upon layer of clean guitars, clean vocals, and clean keys cascade together in a wave of down tempo morose. But it is the last track, the first single from "Dead End Kings," that might best summarize a project that seemed out there in the first place. If you remember how "Dead Letters" made you feel when it was released in 2012, you'll get to feel that all over again, a year later.

We've watched Katatonia grow and change over two decades of work. Each album has seen it's fair share of new territory, pushing the boundaries of a band that is running out of frontiers to conquer. But, even with that information in mind, we couldn't have truly seen this album coming. It was a year ago that our review of "Dead End Kings" made it's appearance on the site, and our feelings on that disc haven't changed since then; it has firmly taken a place in our hearts and our rotation. But it was something we said in that review that strikes me as we listen to this new representation of those songs. "Despite this album being an exploration of those dark corridors, this is anything but a dead end. Instead, this is an open door to the next evolution. And now the waiting starts again." We couldn't possibly have known then what we would be witness to now, let alone that it was only a year away. But somehow, it all makes sense. Evolution has a funny way of doing that, you know. And "Dethroned & Uncrowned" is the next logical step towards something else entirely.


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